Key Considerations for TANF Reauthorization
© Greg Nash

It has been nearly a decade since the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program was fully reauthorized, and funding levels have been flat for even longer. The last time funding for TANF was increased, gas cost $1.22 and “Independence Day” was the year’s highest-grossing film.  

Thankfully, not only our cultural tastes have changed since 1996, but also our economy, our workforce, and our understanding of what works to help more families achieve economic independence have changed as well. I’ve worked with TANF and other employment-related programs in roughly 150 communities in 35 states and contributed to dozens of studies at Mathematica on behalf of the Administration for Children and Families. When the latest short-term extension of TANF expires in November, beneficiaries across the country are not guaranteed another stopgap funding patch, which the Continuing Resolution from September provided. Luckily, Congress has taken positive steps towards introducing a reauthorization bill that goes beyond temporary fixes. This past Summer I was delighted to participate in a Senate Finance Committee members meeting, where nearly a dozen senators from both parties met with experts and researchers, to discuss how to reshape TANF and build on what works.

Rethink the current definition of accountability with an emphasis on progress over paperwork.


Accountability, as defined by federal TANF work requirements, relies primarily on compliance, which does little to help people return to the workforce. Direct service staff, for example, spend a majority of their time on administrative and clerical tasks—such as processing paperwork and tracking down client pay stubs—that offer limited, if any, value to participants in terms of achieving self-sufficiency. Recent time-use surveys in two of our local partner sites found that staff spent roughly 55 to 65 percent of their time on paperwork and other administrative and clerical tasks and about 30 percent on direct service to program participants. I’ve seen how critical one-on-one interaction is for activating a person’s motivation and commitment to change. Yet, program staff are often entrenched in cumbersome paperwork and time-consuming data entry, limiting valuable time and effort that could be invested in improving skills or coaching program participants.

Philadelphia is working to improve program efficiency by assessing the city’s Workforce Development Board paperwork, processes, and data systems. Through these efforts, job seekers went from spending nearly two hours on their first day in the program filling out paperwork to about 15 minutes—and program staff had to process, file, and enter much of this data. The savings, which we estimate to be roughly 20,000 hours per year of participant and direct service staff time, can now be reinvested in more frequent and meaningful interactions.

Incentivize states to invest a portion of their TANF funds in skill-building activities. 

Compliance-oriented programs do little to build a person’s skills. Learning hard skills—computer programming, accounting, finance, and writing—can help families become more economically self-sufficient. In addition, so-called soft skills—self-regulation, communication, and problem solving—are crucial in today’s workforce. Some states are exploring formal and informal ways to incorporate skill-building into their programs. For example, in more than a dozen states such as Colorado, California, Ohio, Michigan, and Minnesota, local communities are incorporating coaching practices designed to build the soft and hard skills of TANF participants, including incorporating structured goal pursuit practices at work experience sites. In addition, many of these sites are teaching parents skill-building activities that they can use with their children.

Promote innovation by supporting evidence-informed practices that inspire progress toward sustainable careers.


Strategies such as WOOP (Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan), also called mental contrasting, implement intentions, mindfulness, and structured goal pursuit practices, which have been informed by recent advances in behavioral science and have been used and tested in education and training programs, health care settings, and employers with proven success. But, we must continue to promote the use and testing of these practices in TANF and workforce programs. Some of the most exciting work being done in the field involves implementing, scaling, and testing innovative practices in TANF. In January 2018, for example, the Colorado Works program in Adams County, Colo., began using behavioral science strategies to diagnose and design low-burden strategies, such as personalized outreach calls, to increase the initial show rate in program activities. Rapid-cycle testing revealed that two-thirds of those who received the telephone reminders showed up for their next appointment, compared with half for those who just got a letter. This kind of testing gives practitioners and policymakers a sense of what’s working and what’s not—in real time. As Congress considers a long-term TANF reauthorization bill, promoting program innovation through demonstration projects and quick-turnaround testing of promising, evidence-informed practices would encourage progress toward more sustainable careers.

The status quo since 1996 has been flat funding and piecemeal authorization. It’s time for Congress to act on what the data and evidence reveal about making TANF more human-focused and less compliance-focused. Giving states more flexibility to design and test innovative practices with TANF participants that have proven success with other populations could achieve what we all hope— economic self-sufficiency and better outcomes for families.

Michelle Derr is senior researcher at Mathematica – which specializes in policy research, data collection, and technical assistance for a variety of health and human services programs.